Born to Kill (1947)

born-to-kill-1If you know what you want in life be sure of it and you can’t miss. I found that out early.  ~ Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde

Reno was always a Hollywood euphemism. What it stood for, of course, was divorce, a dirty word given the sensibilities of the 40s and the 50s. But then again, being the dirty, licentious, pernicious movement that it was, divorce is a perfect starting point for film-noir. That’s where we first meet Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) as she walks down the front steps of the courthouse.

She’s free of her former husband and about to leave her current residence to be closer to her sister back in San Francisco. She also has a wealthy beau on tap who seems to fit her well-to-do, refined nature. In fact, Claire Trevor is different than perhaps we’ve ever known her before, tempered and proper from the higher echelons of society — hardly a femme fatale — so it seems.

Except that’s not quite the case. Put her in contact with a certain type of man, a man of brute aggression and unfettered jealousy and she’s bound to get into trouble. It happens rather haphazardly as Sam Wilde stiff arms his way into her life. Because, the fact is, that is how he does everything. Their meet-cute happens over a craps table of all places. No words are spoken. They give each other the eyes. He is just off a fit of rage and she is looking to return home. So in the end, they wind up together, drawn to each other.

But she is spoken for, and not to be impeded by anything Sam easily shifts his sights on Helen’s younger foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) who actually holds the wealth in the family after receiving a great inheritance. That suits Sam just fine as he closes in on this new prize. Georgia in her innocence is taken by this new man. Meanwhile, Helen at the same time abhors this man pursuing her sister and still madly desires him in some twisted way. Their affair is as passionate as ever.

born-to-kill-2However, evil always looks to catch up with the guilty party and a private investigator is poking around in all the places he can to find the culprit behind an egregious crime. Walter Slezak’s Albert Arnett is a witty sleazeball with the lowest scruples imaginable when money is concerned. But he also happens to be decent at his occupation bringing him to San Francisco in pursuit of answers.

Sam is assisted by his faithful accomplice Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) showcasing his ability with playing crooked pushovers. In the meantime, Helen finds herself losing her fiancee in the drama while being blackmailed by the shady Arnett.

There’s now nothing buffering Helen from the explosive evil in her drawing room. Her sister’s life is torn apart and Helen and Sam must have it out once and for all. They’re too deadly — too volatile for their own good — as everything around them begins to unravel and implode. We expect nothing less in the end.

For being a lesser star, Lawrence Tierney undoubtedly made a killing off his fist-throwing brusque tough guy roles. He’s no turnip, as he puts it, and if there ever was a homme fatale — a deadly male — he most certainly would be the gold standard…

I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and he who falls beneath her spell has need of God’s mercy.” This is a bit of poetic observation from Slezak but there’s also a tremendous resonance to what he says quoting straight from the Bible’s wisdom literature. But perhaps this wisdom also goes both ways since it’s not just the woman who is fallen and corrupted but most certainly her male counterpart. Humans were not Created to Kill but over time they have been Born to Kill and Born to Die too. There’s a difference and that really is the tragic lot of humanity as we know it. Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. 

This is without question Robert Wise’s toughest, deadliest, grittiest picture. He never made a film with more vices or more despicable characters. Imagine, a character who kills for no good reason at all. Just because someone gave him the cold shoulder. It really scrapes the darkest recesses of the barrel. The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity. More’s the pity. It’s cynical too.

3.5/5 Stars

People Will Talk (1951)

peoplewill1People Will Talk is in this weird gray area between genres. It has humor but it’s not screwy enough to be a screwball. It has drama, but it’s not intense enough to be a full-fledged melodrama. And underlining all this are issues that reflect such areas as the medical industry, the Korean War, and most definitely the witch hunts that were going on in the nation — bleeding into the Hollywood industry.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this is a minor classic about a doctor named Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant), who is under investigation from one of his by-the-book colleagues Dr. Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who dislikes the good doctor’s unorthodox and thoroughly effective approach to his trade. Praetorius by now is a preeminent physician who started his own clinic and also teaches classes at a local med school.

One of these individuals happens to be Mrs. Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). She is not a student but sits in the lecture because her former partner was a medic. A date with a cadaver proves to be too much for her and she faints. Seems normal enough right? Wrong. After examining her, the Dr. tells her she’s pregnant. The truth comes out that she’s not really married and the father is dead. Her own father would be greatly distressed to learn about her condition, since he cannot provide for her.

That’s where Dr. Praetorious comes into the picture, and he takes great concern in Ms. Higgins condition. He attempts to allay her anxiety by saying she’s not really pregnant, and she runs away from his clinic out of embarrassment, since she is falling in love with him. He goes with his stoic friend Mr. Shunderson to the farm owned by Deborah’s uncle.

Deborah turns out to have a strange mix of aloofness and lovesickness, but when she realizes the Doctor’s true motive for being there (before he even does) she is wholly relieved. They share a passionate kiss and leave the farm behind to get married. Of course, the Doctor still hasn’t told her about the pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the whole storyline culminates with a concert conducted by Praetorious himself, but it just so happens that the hearing to analyze his conduct is happening simultaneously. Some mysterious truths about Mr. Shunderson are given in his own words, and stale Mr. Elwell’s case is dumped. Everything wraps up nicely as you expect with a happy marriage and Grant free to direct the symphony in one last glorious crescendo.

So you see if you really look at this film, there are these two main story arcs. One is a response to McCarthy’s witch hunts, the other an equally subversive love story about a doctor marrying a woman who had a pregnancy out of wedlock. When you put it that way this film seems chock full of controversy, and yet it is all veiled in a palatable comedy-romance. Walter Slezak is a welcomed addition to the cast as the nutty colleague and Hume Cronyn has taken on better roles, but nonetheless, he is always an enjoyable character actor. Obviously, this is a lesser Grant performance, but his pairing with Jeanne Crain is still a fun one.

4/5 Stars